March 2012 Home Networks

Dear All,

Hi! It’s your friendly local neighbourhood all-things-PC fixer-upper. I hope that your PC(s) and/or Laptop(s), Wireless and Wired Networks, Websites and the like are all working the way you want them to.

OK, this time I want to talk a bit about home networks, something which most of you will have, but many of you won’t know it. Basically, if you have a router, whether it’s wired or wireless – and most of you do – then you have the potential for a home network. What a lot of people don’t realise is that a router doesn’t just connect your PC’s, laptops, Smartphones, Xboxes, Playstations, TV’s and iPads etc to the internet, it also effectively connects them all together. A very good example of this in action is the Network printer. These can be wired or wireless, but in essence a network printer connects to your router rather than to a PC, and then allows other devices on the network to access it and print. Another example is the NAS (Network Attached Storage) which is effectively just a hard disk drive stuck directly onto your network which all other devices potentially have access to, very good for backups or for sharing files to different devices.

So your router connects devices to other devices as well as to the internet. How does that help you? Say for example you have on one PC your entire collection of photographs, but you would like to transfer them to your laptop so you can take them somewhere and show them to someone. You could stick them onto an external storage device (like a USB memory stick/Flash drive) but then you would need a PC or a modern telly where you were going to show them on. You could transfer them onto a memory stick, and then from the stick onto your laptop, job done. Would it perhaps be simpler to be able to transfer directly from the PC to the Laptop? You could share the directory containing the pictures on the PC, and then access that shared directory from the Laptop and copy everything in it to the laptop. That is one of the things a home network can let you do.

Note: The example above has the added advantage of also being a backup of the pictures! However there is a problem in that if you take more pictures, they will be on the PC and not the laptop. You wouldn’t want to re-copy everything just to get a couple of new pictures. Instead you would want some means of “Synchronising” the two sets of pictures so that they were always ‘in sync’. There are some nice programs you can buy to do this for you, but I like the excellent and free “SyncBack” from 2BrightSparks (nothing to do with me)

Another good example of Home Networking involves these nice new televisions that can connect to your network. Some allow you to go on to the internet, or will let you play music or films, and view pictures from shared directories on a PC or NAS on your network. All very good stuff. The more you think about these things the more useful a home network can become.

A word on routers re security.

If you do not need wireless access to your router then turn off wireless access to it! Some modern routers have a button to do this, most have a control page accessible from a browser where you can do this, at a push you can often unscrew the aerial (if it has one) which effectively stops anything more than a foot or two away from seeing it.

If you do want wireless access then make sure that your router asks for a password before it is accessed, keep that password safe, and change it if you think anyone knows it that you don’t want knowing it. Please note that you tend to only need the password (or wireless network key) the first time you set up your connection on each device, so don’t think it isn’t secure if it doesn’t ask you thereafter.

If you turn off your router when it is not in use then be aware that it can take a few minutes for it to sort itself out and settle down before it is ready for use.

Familiarise yourself with the pattern of lights on your router when it is working properly, so that you can spot when there is a problem. People frequently blame their PC’s when they have issues connecting to the internet when it is often the router.

Extending your network.

Wireless Routers have a range that will be restricted by distance and the number of walls, floors and other things that the signal has to pass through. Often moving the router a few inches can make a big difference to the reception in another room. Imagine a piece of string tied to the router passing in a straight line to the devices that it has to link to. If that string were to have to pass through large metal items like fridges or radiators or perhaps a thick fireplace, then the signal will not be as strong as it would where these things not there. So if your signal isn’t good enough then see if you can move one or both devices so the imaginary string avoids such obstacles.

Home (and for that matter business) networks can be extended to cover larger areas through a variety of means. A normal router usually allows a silly number of wireless connections and 4 wired connections. You can run a wire to another part of the house and connect a PC to it, or connect a Wireless Extender or a Switch to give you more connections of the type you need, where you need them. If you have very thick walls than both wireless and wired connections can be very difficult to manage. In these circumstances a pair of Homeplugs can send a good strong signal to another part of your house using the houses electricity supply, a lot easier than running a wire, but it essentially does exactly the same job.

Getting a router.

If you are on cable and don’t have a router, then you will need one to do any of this stuff. Try calling and seeing what they say. If they say you can have one but you need to pay for it, then you can make up your own mind if it’s worth it or not. If however you are not in a contract (just paying month to month) then it might be worth asking them for a MAC code (Migration Authorisation Code). This is something that would allow you to easily switch ISP without having to speak to your current ISP aver again. I should quickly add that asking for one does not commit you to leaving them – only giving the MAC code to another ISP does this – so it is perfectly OK to ask for one. Your current ISP has to assume that this may be the last chance they will have to speak to you and persuade you to stay, and from experience if you are nice enough whilst talking to them you have every chance of getting a free wireless router as a result.

If you get your broadband via your telephone line and are using an old USB connected modem, then you want to consider your options. These USB modems are old and the ISPs don’t want you using them anyway, so the chances are they will give you a router if you tell them you are having intermittent problems. If you are no longer actively in a contract and are just paying monthly to continue your service then it is well worth ringing your ISP and asking them for a wireless router. They will mostly say yes to this on condition that they can sign you up for another year or 18 month contract. If you are happy with your ISP then that should not be a problem. If you are unhappy with your ISP then you should look at the competition who will almost always give you a free router if you agree to a contract of a year or more.

Irrespective of who you are with, if you don’t get a free router and you are NOT currently committed to a contract then it’s worth asking for a MAC code – it can work wonders!

If you aren’t on broadband then you will almost certainly get one as part of your package when you sign up for broadband.

OK that’s it for now, thanks for your time; I hope some of you found some of it useful. Feel free to forward this on to others if you want to.

As usual if your PC / Network / Internet / Email / Backup or whatever isn’t running smoothly at the moment, my number is below, or if you want to ask the odd question or have any suggestions for a topic for another Newsletter or you are finding something particularly frustrating / problematic on the computer front, why not send me an email.